I am a preachy type and so, for years, I have occasionally acted as lay minister at our small Methodist church. The steepled white clapboard building is located next to Green River Farm, our family’s former homestead where we raised pigs and Angus. I wasn’t sure why my mother (she was our farmer in chief) chose to pair those two animals until the day that she cooked a hamburger made from half Angus and half pork sausage. I saw the light.
Midweek before my annual sermon, I grabbed a Bible and the Methodist hymnbook and tried to fashion a narrative, one that would make sense to a group of locals as well as flatlanders. A few phrases kept reappearing in my sermons, including this famous line from 1 Corinthians: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Despite my homilies, I never did put away childish things. As a towheaded youngster, I spent summers walking the woods of our town, from Minister to Swearing Hill, from Red to Egg Mountain, and from the cave up in Beartown to the one just off of Bentley Road that you could have driven a truck through, if you could only figure out how to get it in there in the first place. I usually carried a 22 because Vermonters never walk the woods without a rifle and so I took potshots at crows, grouse, and woodchucks, mostly in vain. Most of all, my expeditions were much like those of Tom Sawyer: rummaging around old cellar holes; pocketing handmade 20 penny nails found in abandoned barns; and exploring post-WWII Chevys, finding mattress springs tattered and naked in the back seat and rabbits living under the hood.
My sister, Kate, and I had our own private Narnia, an unexplored map of swamps, hollows, peaks, and high pastures, with Woodards, Bentleys, Skidmores, Hurds, and Woodcocks printed on mailboxes and with sheep fencing and barbed wire high up off the valleys, where dense stands of poplar, birch, oak, and maple had taken back the pastures of an older generation. To the remaining local farmers, it may have been a hard life but it was a child’s world in the woods where one might peek out from the undergrowth and see a doe with an hours-old fawn learning to stand; a red fox, tail straight back, trotting briskly across a horse pasture; or a helix of humming bees two stories high, floating slowly above the long grasses of August on their way to a new home in the distant woods.
The beauty of childhood is that there is eternal mystery in the undiscovered. Kate and I could stumble into a new universe by standing in a small, cold brook, scooping up a salamander-length crayfish; by exploring abandoned tar-paper hunting shacks with Ball jars of ancient specimens; by watching a roly-poly porcupine waddling through a pine forest; or by surprising a brindled bobcat standing tall in the middle of the dirt road just past one of the best fishing holes in the Green River.
Perhaps Paul, who was a prolific author and endless font of advice for early Christian communities, meant something different by “childish things” in his missive to the Corinthians. Nobody is suggesting that we abandon the usual hallmarks of adult behavior, including the notions of personal responsibility, the benefits of long-term thinking, and one’s debt to society.
A few lucky adults, however, are able to figure out which bits of childhood are worth keeping and which to discard. These are folks who have open, youthful faces, who are quick to laugh at themselves, and who are happy to stand up to life’s iniquities with good humor and resolve. They are also able to see transcendence through the gauzy curtain of everyday life, whether in the crazed yipping of coyotes on a moonless night or when standing in midtown Manhattan, watching the ebb and flow.
Years ago I wrote about a neighbor whom I had interviewed a few weeks before her death. It was a cool Sunday afternoon in early May. We sat on her deck overlooking the garden with tumbles of large rocks, each of which had a particular history. Farther afield was a small orchard, the apple blossoms pink with ripe buds. I remember small things from that day: attaching a small black microphone to her sweater, the sound of the scruffy wind in the earphones, and the weathered gray of the old barn that had been turned into a sauna a generation before—the place where many of the town’s long-standing couples first met. And, most of all, the light in her eyes, the upward turn at the corners of her mouth, and a pixie childishness as she was turning life’s last corner.
These two things together—light and dark—can be seen clearly only by those with a child’s imagination. It reminds me of an old rock-and-roll lyric: “Your eyes looked through your mother’s face.” On that spring Sunday years ago, I saw the eyes of a child peering through the face of someone on the edge of death. Putting away childish things is good advice, I suppose, but to walk through the woods, or life, with the eyes of a child is the ultimate blessing.